An International upset of the heavily-favored Americans in the Presidents Cup would be epic ... but not impossible
Why is it that we enjoy such a bromance with our sports? Perhaps it’s because there always exists the ultra-slim chance that we’ll see something none of us expected to see. It can take the form of some teeth-missing U.S. college boys taking down the mighty Soviets in hockey, or North Carolina State stunning Houston’s Phi Slama Jama at the buzzer, or Buster Douglas dropping heavyweight Mike Tyson in a boxing ring halfway around the world.
If you think David vs. Goliath was a huge upset (as Vegas did), well, you should have seen how the matchup appeared on parchment. (According to the original Jimmy the Greek, Goliath went off at minus-40,000.) Which brings us to the 13th Presidents Cup, to be played at Australia’s Royal Melbourne, which, um, given the location, gets under way two days ago – otherwise known as next Thursday in the Southern Hemisphere, where things have a penchant for swirling in the opposite direction. That’s the hope, anyway.
With Europe having sparked a revolution against the U.S. in the feisty, biennial Ryder Cup in the 1980s, then-commissioner Tim Finchem and the PGA Tour decided in the 1990s to fill those empty off-years by letting the rest of the world in on the action against Uncle Sam’s best. Again, simply by the numbers, you’d think a pool of 7.7 billion people (world) could hold its own with a “smallish” U.S. squad of 330 million or so. In time, another great rivalry would blossom. Us vs. World. Make sure to buy the T-shirt.
Instead, what we’ve watched with the Presidents Cup is the most one-sided “rivalry” since the nail made the ill-fated decision to take on the hammer. The Internationals return to Royal Melbourne under the crushing weight of being 1-10-1 in these matches. It’s a winning percentage better only than Jack Lemmon at Pebble Beach. Bugs have fared better all-time against windshields.
When you’re 1-10-1 in anything, there are many reasons for it. For the Internationals, there are inherent challenges that the U.S. simply does not face. This 2019 team has players from Australia (3), South Korea (2), Japan, China, Chile, Mexico, Taiwan, South Africa and Canada. Joining together and gelling as one united family isn’t as easy and seamless as Mike and Carol Brady made it appear.
Firstly, there’s the awkward assignment of blending multiple cultures in one locker room. There are language barriers that require players to have translators. There are cuisine decisions and considerations beyond the guys down the hall living on New York strips, hot dogs and apple pie.
You’d think that with the game growing globally, delivering fledgling stars from all corners of the globe, the gap in depth would be narrowing. But Uncle Sam’s boys are on a bit of a worldly run, and this cup once again shows a massive world-ranking chasm between sides. Despite leaving injured World No. 1 Brooks Koepka at home, the U.S. will bring five top-10 players from the Official World Golf Ranking. All but two of the 12 U.S. players reside inside the world top 20; as of today, the Internationals boasted only two (No. 15 Adam Scott and No. 20 Hideki Matsuyama) among that first 20.
Suffice to say, captain Ernie Els and his undermanned International golfing “ants” have a considerable expedition ahead in order to climb that rubber-tree plant. Why, the great Tiger Woods, he of the 82 career Tour victories, including 15 majors, not only will captain the U.S. but will play, too. This cup would appear to be so lopsided that the home club has little to lose and everything to gain.
This has been Els’ message all along: He has preached to his side in their many meetings that while much of the golf world will be sleeping, his players have the opportunity to partake in what could be “one of the biggest events of their lifetimes.” It’s true. The Internationals’ taking down this U.S. team would be an all-timer.
The mantras include “Trust the plan” and “Whatever it takes.” Already, Adam Scott, competing in his ninth cup (he's 0-7-1), has let his country know that this is an International home game and should be treated as such. Instead of fawning over Tiger, D.J., Justin, Rickie and the gang, fans do need to be partisan, and emerge as an important 15th club.
Els doesn’t have much team horsepower, truthfully, and he lost one of his biggest weapons when former World No. 1 Jason Day pulled out with an injury. (Don’t be surprised to see Byeong Hun An become a better replacement part.) Els has but one player on his team (fellow South African Louis Oosthuizen) with a winning record. Rookies aside, the U.S. has but one competitor (Matt Kuchar) who does not own more victories than defeats.
The U.S. must hope that Dustin Johnson (offseason knee surgery) and Rickie Fowler (marriage, then an intestinal virus) arrive in Melbourne a tad rusty, that Bryson DeChambeau lifted too many weights in the post-Tour Championship months (he has added 15 pounds), and that the team captain, Woods, will be distracted from his primary duties in filling a role as the first playing captain since Hale Irwin in 1994.
U.S. players competing in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup era have proved to be sharper than in the days when there were long layoffs into cup matches. This time, between the repositioned Tour Championship finale in August and waiting for Australia’s summer, there’s a big competitive gap. Is there potential for U.S. overconfidence? Sure, there is. Could the Americans get caught sleeping, as was the case in 1998, when the home side thumped their visitors, 20½-11½, for its lone triumph in the series? (Well, don’t ask Chile’s Joaquin Niemann about that match; he was 1 month old.)
Seven rookies? Let’s try to view the positive side: The first-timers enter the arena harboring no scar tissue from past onslaughts. Remember when U.S. captain Paul Azinger took six rookies into the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla? Boo Weekley headed off the first tee riding his driver like Happy Gilmore. There was a freshness and renewed excitement, and the U.S. won resoundingly.
Then there is this: The U.S. won’t land in Australia until Monday afternoon. The four times previously that the U.S. has taken a lengthy flight to get to the matches (Melbourne in 1998 and 2011; South Africa in 2003; South Korea in 2015) the Internationals have been pretty competitive, the lone exception being the last Royal Melbourne edition, when another stacked U.S. team romped rather easily.
Otherwise, it was the Internationals winning big in ’98, tying 17-all in South Africa in 2003 (culminating in an electric three-hole Els-Woods playoff before darkness) and a duel in South Korea four years ago that the Internationals probably should have won. American Chris Kirk made a clutch 15-footer on the final hole, and India’s Anirban Lahiri missed from 4 feet. Bill Haas then seized the winning point as the U.S. escaped with a one-point decision.
“It was such a close call,” Oosthuizen said, “and that’s how it goes. It did sting a bit.”
Certainly, the Internationals will need some sort of perfect storm. A hot start, a boisterous crowd making itself heard, perhaps some combo of U.S. apathy and ragged play. The hosts need somehow to apply pressure on a lineup that, on paper, is far superior. Els respects his opponent; he doesn't fear his opponent. He has done all of the little things. He has conducted frequent meetings dating to the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, fought for four captain’s picks, paired players in Tour practice rounds, got several players to tune up at this week’s Australian Open (scores), and shared lots of course knowledge about Royal Melbourne, which he knows intimately.
“At the end of the day, we've got a bigger following than the American team, and we, on paper, people are not giving us much of a chance,” Els said. “…But you know, somebody is going to win 15½ points, and at the end of the day, that's our aim, to try and get 15½ points somehow off of this unbelievably talented team. And that's that. You know, it's the score on the board that counts.”
Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi once said that winning is a habit. So, too, he said, is losing. The Internationals need to break this troubling losing habit, or men’s golf will continue to have one great cup and one that’s little more than a goodwill cookout every other year.
Can the Internationals pull off an upset of this magnitude? This writer’s mortgage won’t be wagered on it. However, on any given day, we’ve seen the likes of underdogs Ed Fiori, Costantino Rocca, Y.E. Yang and Nick O’Hern all load up a slingshot against Tiger and take him down. It's match play, 18 holes. A boat race, as Tiger terms it.
Beat the U.S., and there’s not a single player on the International side who ever will pay for a cold Foster’s in Oz. It’s sports, after all. Every now and then, magic happens. That in itself keeps us watching.